We recently came back from a quick 9 day trip to Korea to visit my dad’s side of the family. There are lots of facets to look back on this memorable trip but it was an interesting experience seeing the country and its food culture through the eyes of my Japanese-American husband and two American children.
I’ve visited Korea before and grew up in an immigrant household where we mostly ate Korean food so culture shock was not expected, but traveling as a mom of two kids was definitely a far cry from my last visit as a care-free college student. With my companions (hubby, a toddler and preschooler) in tow, here are some of my observations about eating in Korea.
+ Abundance is a word that comes to mind when thinking about eating in Korea. There’s an abundance of what’s on the table – a stimulating sensorial array of small side dishes (banchan), bubbling stews, pungent pickled things. You can also expect to eat in abundance and not ever feel like you will miss a meal because there’s a restaurant on every corner. You will also have food coming at you from your host or whoever you are dining with. It’s a cultural thing to show your hospitality and love through food and offering it whether they want it or not is not the issue. My husband has already been hazed in this tradition by my parents and extended family. To put it bluntly, Koreans are generally food pushers. Don’t take offense, if someone plops food on your plate, whether you asked for it or not.
“A meal is not complete for a Korean, without soup or Kimchi,” – My aunt
+ Kid seating. High chairs were a rare commodity. Unless you’re specifically at a family friendly restaurant, or at a theme park for kids (e.g. Lotte World), don’t expect to find any high-chairs or boosters for your kids. In most restaurants we found that there is a section for Western style tables and chairs, or in the more traditional setting of sitting on the floor with a low table. We ended up in the traditional setting most of the time. My kids spend a lot of time on the floor anyway so they didn’t seem to have minded this too much. What they did mind was taking their shoes on and off every time we had a meal ate these restaurants.
With the lack of high chairs we had to rely on lots of distractions to keep them from roaming around since they weren’t strapped down. Thank goodness for Pororo cartoons! (if you don’t know who this cartoon character is, your kids will be indoctrinated as a Pororo fan as soon as you board the plane via the branded kids plane meals and his presence all over Korea!)
+ Kid Food. There’s no special kids menu. And I kind of love this. The expectation is that the kids eat what the adults are eating. Because of the abundance of variety and omni-presence of rice there is always something that kids can eat and turn into a meal. My kids got by like this without having to resort to mac & cheese or chicken nuggets (not that we had the option!).
+ Breakfast. In Korea there’s no specific food you eat during “breakfast” like here in the states. The younger generation in Korea likely adopts a simple western style breakfast but at least within my extended family – they seemed to stick to the same traditional morning meal which is anything you would eat for lunch or dinner! But typically breakfast is comprised of soup and rice with some banchan. I’m fascinated by what people eat for breakfast around the word, there’s so much variety. Have you seen the NYT Magazine piece (from a few years go) on what kids around the world eat for breakfast?
Before we embarked on this trip, I had anxiety around how my kids would adapt to the new country, the language barrier and Korean food 24/7 but I was proud and relieved to see how adaptable and resilient they were to their new surroundings.
It was also nice to have the astute and blunt observations of a 4 year old. My son exclaimed “that’s a weird breakfast!” at 8am in front of a table set with a steaming fish casserole with banchan around it. We were definitely not having blueberry pancakes that morning.
Perhaps my kids are still too young to have any sort of culture shock, since they’re still getting grounded in their own reality. Through this quick international trip, I hope the sights, the smells, and tastes of Korea are woven into their sense of heritage and family roots.